It’s marmalade month, that time of the culinary year when Seville oranges – with their exquisite perfume and thick, bitter rinds – come into season for a few short weeks. It’s also the moment that Telegraph readers write in to the letters page to report that they swear by a recipe first published in these pages in 1959.
Reprinted right, it was relatively simple, and billed as a no-nonsense method for men with working wives (imagine!). Which I find surprising, as in my experience men quite often make more of a meal of boiling up marmalade than women.
For something with only three ingredients – citrus, sugar, water – it’s astounding how different the end product can be. And I’m afraid that those of us who eat marmalade (especially if we make it) are rather unbending about how it should taste and look. Most of us don’t keep bees because it’s not hard to find good honey, and we can buy every variety of bread, so we needn’t bother to make our own.
But if you like marmalade, then it is pretty much incumbent on you to make it at home, probably from some ancient encrusted recipe that has been passed down the generations, even though it only came from Good Housekeeping in 1933.
The marmalade season still divides us just as it always did. For a start, it will always have its rivals – honey, jam and Marmite have always been in the running; peanut butter and chocolate spread are relative newcomers, and avocados have come up on the outside and lured the younger generation away. Both my sons’ breakfasts will consist of some sort of smashed avo-and-egg combo on their toast and, in terms of nutrition, one can’t really argue. Yet there is something compelling about marmalade on toast that means jam just cannot compare.
Bitter Seville oranges are absolute legends: they have an ancient history of medical uses and almost mystical properties; they have been variously used for congested chests, for the stomach, for headaches, as an aphrodisiac (admittedly, unproven), as an antiseptic and a stimulant.
Having said this, the practical Mrs Beeton, who published her cookery book in 1861, offers marmalade recipes galore, but contrarily advises her readers that they can’t do better than buy the stuff from Keiller’s.
Anybody who has ever been to the annual Marmalade Festival at Dalemain in Cumbria will have seen some enterprising additions – ranging from gin, lavender and matcha tea to black garlic and tomatoes. For there comes a stage in the life of all marmalade-makers when they start to get competitive and decide to enter.
The precious jars are posted off to Cumbria, and their creator may be a little downcast to receive such in-depth analysis: too runny, scruffy jars, peel clustering at the top, air bubbles, a pip, unevenly cut peel, jars not full, paper lids… The feedback is generous and exhaustive, and entering the contest certainly raises your game.
From marmalade’s 16th-century beginnings as a thick quince paste, studded with dates and nuts, to its current incarnation as a classic breakfast ingredient, that mixture of sour fruit and sugar is unbeatable.
But the problem is perfecting the formula of sugar to fruit – and that’s where opinions differ so sharply.
I sell marmalade at farmers’ markets, and have been asked for a “sweet” marmalade and for sour; for a low-sugar version and one with no sugar at all (I politely explain it’s impossible); for chunky and for rindless; even for marmalade made without oranges.
My mother’s formula was fairly standard: 1 pint of pulp (cooked-down oranges and water) to 1lb of sugar. It seethed away on the Aga and she seemed to know by sight when it was ready – or perhaps it was just that she needed the Aga top for something else.
For me, working in kilos, I finally arrived at a maximum of 750g sugar to a litre of pulp, and mostly lower than that. Oh, and shall we just talk about the set? I think you can’t go wrong looking at the drips off the spoon. If they run off, you’re miles away. If they slowly drip and then hang, then you’re pretty much there.
If you must, pop a saucer in the freezer before you start chopping your oranges. When you think that your preserve is setting, drop a blob onto the chilled plate, let it sit for 30 seconds and then push your finger through it: if it wrinkles, you’ve reached your setting point.
I’m yet to find the perfect thermometer: I like digital ones with long needles like meat thermometers, but they tend to get steamed up and start shrieking: “106C! Oh, sorry no, 100C… Whoops, no, I meant 103…”
A revelation to me was Roger Fry’s marmalade recipe, probably a century old and reprinted by Jans Ondaatje Rolls in The Bloomsbury Cookbook.
Fry makes his marmalade over three days, soaking the oranges in between boilings. It may well have been pure practicality: they were all so busy painting and generally being Bloomsberries that there wasn’t time to set aside a whole cooking day. I’m a big fan of the Fry method – slice, soak, boil, soak, add sugar, boil – it’s simple, practical and it improves the set. I use it year-round, boiling up batches using frozen Seville oranges.
Making marmalade is much more than cooking. Even the chopping is peaceful (top tip: before I begin, I put blue plasters on the first two fingers of my left hand to avoid a medical drama). There’s a sort of alchemy in creating something that involves a bit of skill and concentration.
And, unlike a soufflé or a cake, there will still be jars of the stuff in a year, as good as ever. If that doesn’t appeal, just go to work and get a man to make it.